On October 15, 1542, a baby was born to a fugitive prince and his fifteen-year-old wife in the Sindhi desert town of Umarkot. The prince had been driven from his throne in Delhi, and fleeing westward through the wastes of Rajasthan toward Persia, he survived by eating horsemeat boiled in the helmets of his last bodyguards. Nothing about the circumstances of the birth looked promising, yet the horoscope cast for the child by his father was auspicious in every detail—and rightly so, as it turned out.
For the child born in the desert was the future Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), the greatest ruler of his remarkable dynasty, who in time not only restored the lands lost by his father, the Emperor Humayun (1508– 1556), but laid the foundations for what would grow to be the greatest and most populous of all Muslim empires. At their peak, the Mughals ruled over some 100 million subjects—five times the number ruled by their Ottoman rivals, and many times that ruled by their immediate westerly neighbors, the Safavids of Isfahan in Iran.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great bustling Mughal cities are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. To a man of Milton’s generation, this was no understatement, for Lahore dwarfed any city in the West: “The city is second to none, either in Asia or in Europe,” thought the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Monserrate,
with regard to size, population, and wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who foregather there from all over Asia…. There is no art or craft useful to human life which is not practised there…. The citadel alone…has a circumference of nearly three miles.
From the ramparts of that citadel—the Lahore fort—Akbar ruled over most of India, all of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, and much of Afghanistan. For their impoverished contemporaries in the West, the Mughals became symbols of luxury and might—attributes with which the word “mogul” is still loaded.
But if the Mughals represented Islamic rule at its most magnificent, they also defined Islam at its most open-minded, tolerant, and syncretic. Unlike the Ottomans or the Safavids, who ruled largely Muslim polities, the Mughal Empire was effectively built in partnership with India’s Hindu majority, and succeeded as much through diplomacy as by brute force: Akbar in particular was a true humanist who strove for the reconciliation of his Hindu and Muslim subjects, and managed to unite them in the service of a coherent multireligious state.
As emperor, Akbar promoted Hindus at all levels of his administration, married a Rajput princess, and entrusted his army to his former Hindu opponent, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. He ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian, codified minority rights, and filled his court with Hindu and Muslim artists and intellectuals. Akbar personally adopted many Hindu and yogic practices, and even became a vegetarian …